‘These People Have No Idea What Is Coming …’

Sep 26, 2005  •  Post A Comment

Jeff Morrow and Mike Bettes are on-camera meteorologists and in-the-field meteorologists for The Weather Channel. Here are their first-person accounts of what it was like to cover Hurricane Katrina from the front lines.

Jeff Morrow:

One of the things that struck me when we first arrived in New Orleans to start our reports on the Saturday before [the Monday] Katrina hit was that it seemed to be business as usual with many tourists. There was even a wedding reception being held on the second floor of the Jackson Brewery in the French Quarter. At that point, the mayor hadn’t made evacuation mandatory. People knew that a big hurricane was coming, but they weren’t taking it all that seriously. The mood changed quickly the next morning when the mayor made evacuation mandatory.

I remember being down on the River Walk and doing reports from there on Sunday. A lot of tourists would walk by and ask us about what was happening, because the airport was shutting down and they couldn’t get any rental cars out of town. They were pretty much stranded. One group from New Jersey was there for a bachelor party, still in a jovial mood after celebrating Saturday night. They were kind of lighthearted when they stopped me. I told them, “This is a Category 5 hurricane with maximum wind speeds up to 175 miles per hour.” It took a moment to sink in, and then they asked me where I thought they should go. I told them to stay in the hotel until they were told to evacuate. “I wouldn’t be out on the streets when it hits,” I told them. “These people have no idea what is coming at them,” I said to my crew.

Some teachers from West Virginia were concerned about getting back, about missing their flight on Monday. They wanted to know if they could fly out Tuesday after the hurricane went by. The color went out of their faces when I alerted them to how bad this was going to be. “I don’t mean to scare you, but when you’re talking about a Category 5, these only make landfall once every 35 to 40 years,” I said. This was beyond what anyone had experienced.

Lots of homeless people were by the park at the River Walk. I told them that I had heard that the Superdome was going to be used as a “shelter of last resort.” I felt badly for them. Their home was the park. Then you had to worry how bad it was to go to the Superdome.

We decided to relocate on Sunday afternoon. When we checked out of the Hyatt Hotel, it startled a woman in her 20s who worked there. “My God, you’re leaving?” she asked. “Yes, it’s too dangerous. We have to go.” Her first response was to ask if we would take her with us. I told her if she could be ready to go in 10 minutes, we would take her wherever we ended up going. But then she realized that she couldn’t leave, that she felt a responsibility to stay because she had volunteered to work. I hope she got out OK.

When we evacuated to Covington, north of Lake Pontchartrain, we stopped at a Hampton Inn that was full. We had to broadcast all day Monday, but the power was out, cell phones were out and all we had was the satellite truck. For a long time we had no contact. We watched the Weather Channel from the satellite truck, but that was more than most people had. The people around us had no clue. They were figuratively and literally in the dark. It was like being on the moon.

As we came back after the day out shooting, we put one of our TV monitors outside the truck for people to watch. They couldn’t hear the sound but they watched the video. Between 75 and 100 people gathered around. It was their only means of learning where the hurricane had gone or how widespread the damage had been. They were grateful. They asked us “What have you heard about New Orleans?” “What happened to the downtown area? To Kenner?” “What have you heard?” Reports were sketchy, and the rumor mill had started with talk that the levee had broken and the whole downtown was completely trashed.

On Tuesday morning, when the levee did break, we found out on WWL-AM, the only radio station that stayed on the air. About 9 a.m. the station confirmed that one of the levees had broken and that another might, and that the city was starting to fill with water. Before we heard that, we had expected to recap what happened the day before and wrap up our coverage. But the levee break changed everything. A disaster was unfolding. By about 9:30 we decided to change locations because we still had no cell phone. As we were leaving, others were packing up. When we told them we had heard that a levee had broken and part of the city was starting to fill with water, the reaction of some was to go back to their homes and try to get things out of their houses. We knew they wouldn’t be able to get back in and we told them that.

On our way to a new location, we saw cars lined up at gas stations. People could not get gas because the pumps were powered by electricity. There must have been more than 100 cars just sitting and waiting and hoping that the power would come back on. Fortunately, our driver had stored gasoline. When we stopped at a station to pour it into our tank, a Mississippi patrolman advised us to put it away, out of the view of all the people there who might become desperate as they waited for gas. We went up the road to an isolated spot to refuel.

You have to understand, everything had been taken away: electricity, communications, even cell phones didn’t work. People don’t know what is going on; they can’t get gas. That’s when people start getting desperate. Because of the desperation people feel in the real big ones-I saw it before during in Hurricane Andrew in 1992- people resort to desperate measures.

But this hurricane was different from most others, where the damage is confined to small areas. Even Andrew was over one particular area. When that’s the case, the full brunt is concentrated on that one area and things can get better quickly and help is on the way. The overwhelming thing about Katrina is that it affected so many people . I’ve never been in that kind of situation.

Typically in covering these storms, we are working so hard and so many hours and thinking about the job we’re doing and that’s the main focus. You can almost become detached from what’s happening Coming face to face with the enormity of what happened with Katrina, we were glad to be able to focus on our jobs, so that we didn’t have to think about what was going on around us for that time. This was the saddest thing I’ve ever had to cover. It made me very sad then, and it still does.

Mike Bettes:

My journey with Hurricane Katrina took many paths, each more difficult than the one before. I initially began reporting on Katrina in Palm Beach, Fla. At the time it hit land there on Aug. 25 it was a minimal, Category 1 hurricane, windy with some heavy rain and causing some minor damage. Little did we know what Katrina would become just four days later.

After covering the Florida landfall, I returned to the Weather Channel studios to anchor Katrina coverage from Atlanta that weekend. It became a monstrous Category 5. There was zero chance it would miss the Gulf Coast. Tensions were very high. I was working with Sharon Resultan and neither of us anticipated what was going to happen. This was uncharted territory. We had never seen a storm this big and this powerful take aim at the most vulnerable part of the coast. That uneasy feeling in my stomach never went away.

On Monday Katrina made a second landfall, this time on the Gulf Coast. I couldn’t believe the pictures. My mind couldn’t comprehend what my eyes were seeing. I knew I was headed back down to the Gulf Coast. This was going to be much different than anything I had ever done before.

We drove to Long Beach, Miss., with four days of supplies. We had to take everything with us: food, water, gas, blankets and pillows. We knew there would be no place to stay, so we planned to sleep in our camper.

Seeing the coastline firsthand was jaw-dropping. There was complete destruction all around us. Homes and business
es in this quaint beach community had been washed away by 25-foot waves.

As heartbreaking as the sights were, the people’s stories of survival were even worse. I talked with a man named Michael Webb who rode out the powerful Hurricane Camille in 1969 and decided to ride out Katrina. As the water kept rising, he held on to the gutters of his home while clinging to a cooler he used as a life preserver. The waves lashed at him for five hours. He thought about letting go but he couldn’t swim. The fear of drowning is what kept him going. His home is a complete loss but at least he survived to tell his story.

I met another couple, Mr. and Mrs. Jerry Kendall, whose home was crushed by Hurricane Ivan last year. They decided they had had enough and sold their Pensacola property and moved to Pass Christian, Miss. After all, the area had not had a significant hit from a hurricane in almost 40 years. I walked with them through the piles of debris where their home once stood. The only thing they recovered was a small piece of wood from their bed. The tears welled up in their eyes and mine as we talked. They had no home, no cars, no money and no hope.

I will never forget the survivors of Katrina. The images and stories are etched in my mind forever.